Wednesday, December 16, 2009

'Shadows', Favorite Work of Alvin Singleton, on 'First Edition' CD by Atlanta Symphony Orchestra

[Alvin Singleton; Atlanta Symphony Orchestra; First Edition FECD-0043 (2005)]

The name of composer Alvin Singleton, whose website is has appeared frequently on AfriClassical during the past year, due to his numerous commissions and premieres. We interviewed Alvin on Dec. 12, 2009 after his trip home to Atlanta from a two-month artist's residency at the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, New Hampshire.

I think you have the record for the most interviews that I've done with any individual.
Oh, really?
Yes, we've covered a variety of things including the residency in Tirana in Albania. We recently wrote about “Almost a Boogie” that is scheduled to have its premiere on March 7, 2010 by the Walden Chamber Players.
This recording appears to have been at the end of the LP era, when it was originally issued?
No, it was originally put out on CD by Nonesuch Records.
And then First Edition reissued it.
I guess I was misled by the timing of the recording.
Yes, it was short, only about 46 minutes. The original recording by Nonesuch came out in 1989. First Edition re-released it in 2005.
I'm sure it's always good to see your work perpetuated on more recent releases; it probably helps to have it more recently released?
Oh yes, it does!
The critic who is quoted on the CD liner notes is Kyle Gann of The Village Voice?
Yes, he wrote an article about me in 2008 for Chamber Music America Magazine.
I think we used it as background for an interview. If the liner notes are correct, you had been in Europe for about 14 years?
Yes, exactly!
Is it accurate that it was Robert Shaw's invitation that encouraged you to return to the United States?
Yes, it was, actually through “Meet The Composer,” their orchestral residency program, Robert Shaw invited me to become Composer-in-Residence with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra.
As a part of their program?
Yes, exactly!
They indicate in the liner notes that “Meet The Composer” has “stimulated the creation of more than 700 new works” and reached “audiences totaling over 45 million people”?
Wow! Well actually they not only do the residencies, but have so many other programs that support composers with new works, including travel money. They also encourage multiple performances of new works.
“After Fallen Crumbs,” a 1987 composition, that was after you returned to the United States, right?
Yes, I was in residence at the Atlanta Symphony from 1985 until 1988. In that period I wrote two works. I wrote “Shadows” which is the main work, and then “After Fallen Crumbs” came shortly thereafter.
On the recording “After Fallen Crumbs” is listed as a “Meet The Composer” commission, as you indicated, along with “Shadows”...
It's 6 minutes and 25 seconds, and you indicate it's in memory of Martin Luther King, Jr.?
Was there any particular thought that you had in mind regarding commemorating his life and work?
No, only in that “After Fallen Crumbs” is based upon, at least the opening theme, is based on an earlier work of mine for male chorus called “Fallen Crumbs.”
I see.
The words are mine except I used a Hindu proverb, “An ant can feed a family from the fallen crumbs of an elephant.”
So that's where that comes from?
Yes, and I filled out the rest of the words and it's about world poverty. I dedicated it to Martin Luther King, Jr. because that was one of the things he fought for, poor people.
There are notes by Carman Moore. He speaks of the opening “with loud brass and timpani” followed by a sound of woodwinds and so on. Are there any comments you'd like to make about the sound of the work?
No, it's a work that I liked in the beginning and I still like it to this day! It just sounds good to me!
It hasn't lost its appeal, then?
Yes, exactly!
The second work, which you indicate is the earlier of the two and is the main work, is 22 minutes and 17 seconds?
Yes, “Shadows.”
The first work I believe is conducted by Louis Lane?
The second by Robert Shaw?
And the piece is dedicated to Robert Shaw. I worked with him for three years and it was coming to an end, and the major work I was doing for the symphony I thought should be dedicated to him.
Well that makes a lot of sense.
Carman Moore describes this as “a passacaglia-like composition”, interworking and layering melodies of contrasting styles and moods”?
Yes. I describe the work often as an idea based upon different-sized spinning tops, each having its own little melody, and they intersect and shadow one another as the work develops.
Do I understand the idea right that the largest top is meant to be the last one to be spinning?
Yes and each top repeats and they intersect, shadow and dodge one another at different points and then the last one spinning gobbles up all the others and that's when there's a huge climax.
Carman refers to being hypnotized by the process?
The third work you have again is conducted by Louis Lane...
Yes. “A Yellow Rose Petal” is the oldest work and that was written for the Houston Symphony. In fact, it was my first orchestral commission.
It was?
Well that must have meant something to you, I would think?
Yes. It's called “A Yellow Rose Petal” because if Texas is a rose then Houston must be a petal! (Laughs)
I'm sure people in Texas in particular would appreciate this. Carman Moore refers in this piece to “high contrasts of all kinds.” Carman goes on to say he feels this work reflects your “double fascination with drama and form” and that you go on to comment on the “macho image” of Texas and seem to counter that with what he calls the “fragile-sounding line for solo oboe.”
(Laughs) I didn't remember that!
He says you proceed with “a display of orchestral power and energy” and then close “with a tinkling music box effect scored for celesta.” “A music box challenges the full swaggering orchestra and has the last word – suggesting the composer's wit and compassion for the underdog.”
(Laughs) Well, Carman knows me well! We've been friends for years! I never know what he's going to write, how he's going to interpret what I do. (Laughs)
It doesn't sound like something you'd necessarily disagree with.
No, actually not. But some of these things he writes, it's not conscious to me when I'm composing.
I see. He's picking up on things?
Yes, he just knows me so well, he uses what he knows of me to analyze the music or analyze the ways in which I think about the music.
It seems to me from a non-musician standpoint that the two of you seem to have a great deal in common with your focus on contemporary and modern compositions.
Carman is a composer himself. He's also a writer and he was also the first New Music critic of The Village Voice in New York
Yes, he wrote all the New Music reviews, he did rock and he did jazz, well!
That's quite a mandate!
Yes, he's quite knowledgeable in styles of music.
He must be!
He still writes program notes for me!
Is that right?
The two of you must have a close working relationship then?
Yes, I just send him what's new and he listens and writes about what’s going on in the music
Well it must be working!
It is.
He must enjoy it?
Oh yes, we both do.
What else would you like to say about these three pieces?
I was just happy to have my first and only orchestral recording! It's really helped a lot in terms of performances, and getting something on CD that people could take home.
Has the first orchestral work been performed more as a result of the recording?
Oh, you mean “A Yellow Rose Petal”?
That's been performed early on quite a bit! I don't know of anybody performing it now.
It was something that was performed a number of times when it was new?
Yes, exactly. “After Fallen Crumbs” still gets performances, but the piece that I'd like to have performed a lot is “Shadows,” because that seems to be my favorite work and also the favorite work of a lot of performers and conductors. I know that it's been played by the Symphony Orchestras of Boston, Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Louisville, at the Aspen Festival, and of course performed and recorded by Atlanta.
I see that Carman says “From four to five pitches, the composer has created ten or so melodies”?
Yes, yes.
Before the part I mentioned before about interworking and layering?
Yes, I had to minimize my pitch choices so that one could hear the overlaying of the little melodies that keep repeating.
Also, there's a low E drone in the basses.
Oh, that's right, he did refer to “long, low E's sounded at the bottom of the orchestra.”
Then he says it “settles into a state at once tense and meditative.”
And then he talks about going into the violas and the drums. I can understand, then, if this is a work that you've really enjoyed, that a lot of other people have enjoyed that it would be one...
Yes, I liked it because the idea that I set out with actually worked! You never know how things are going to work or how they're going to turn out, but this one really worked for me!
Evidently, yes.
It's a long work, one needs to take the time to listen. By having it on a CD, repeated listening could take place at home.
Right, for a 22-minute work...
It takes a long time, it develops very slowly, and it just requires a little patience in the beginning, until you get to the point where it explodes.
That's a word Carman uses also, saying “The full orchestra explodes with melodic elements”
Then he refers “like sunshine at the passing of a thunderstorm, the flutes, harps, high winds and strings introduce a quiet meditation and spirituality to the close.”
Is there anything else, Alvin, that you'd like to tell us today?
I think the recording is really good! The producer is Thomas Frost.
And the recording engineer Tom Lazarus?
Yes, exactly. They are both excellent.
Are those people you worked with other times?
No, I knew of Thomas Frost because he was a great producer! So I was surprised that he was going to produce my recording. This is my very first recording.
It is?
I remember we discussed a work of yours that was on a recording by the Detroit Symphony?
That was BluesKonzert, it was recorded later.
Well, you have plenty of reasons to enjoy and appreciate this recording, since you appreciate the quality and you have a favorite work on it?
Yes, the performances are really good!
Is there anything else you'd like to mention today?
No, nothing I can think of.
I think you've given me answers to the questions that I had, and after several interviews we're almost getting familiar with each other's style!
(Laughs) Yes! Thank you, Bill!

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